A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes.
This month: Jimmy Lawlor ‘11
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
Career-wise, I’m working on a number of projects across a variety of fields. I just opened the regional premier of Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, next I’m checking in on the lighting for CBS’s NFL coverage at their studio here in New York, and then I’m off to do a production of Gypsy at NYU Steinhardt and a production of Tosca at Virginia Opera: and that’s just September. Life-wise, I’m continuing to be a husband and a father, a lover of cocktails, and economics. We’ll actually be welcoming our second child in the spring! I always say that I don’t know why people put such an emphasis on being a ‘New York designer’ except that it means I can do what I love and somehow still afford to pay exurbanite rent for a family. This becomes truer and truer overtime.
You graduated in 2011 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
I’m still honestly surprised that anyone pays me for this. Don’t get me wrong: I put a high value on what we all do, and I’m always pushing to make sure we’re fairly compensated for our work, but I get paid to travel, see new places, hang out with my friends, and do what I love. I have no ego about how I achieve those things. I’ve always been attracted to what we do because we can do it in so many different ways. I always say that I like to visit commercial theatre, but I’d never want to live there. I’m fascinated by the TV world, and how opera feels like its own little community. By designing for all of them, I get to visit with everyone: live performance, broadcast, industrial, event, architecture, and flex different muscles along the way.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
I started an alumni play reading when I first graduated, but it didn’t take off. I make sure to attend all the alumni events I’m in town for, and honestly NYU folk seem to find each other out in the world. My favorite thing is to be working on a project and then find out that one of my more established collaborators went to NYU.
Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?
All the time! Right now! Keegan Butler ’19 is my associate on my next project and Abby Hoke-Brady ’16 is my associate on the project after that. I work on industrials with Will Cotton ’15, Elizabeth Coco ’13, and Driscoll Otto ’07, and I have a yearly project with Robert Henderson Jr. ’99. Aside from just work, I hang out with members of the NYU alumni community ranging from the class of 1988 through 2019. It’s always great to hang out and work with them because we have a shared vocabulary and reference point, which is always helpful when you have a deadline.
Do you have an anecdote that you think current students and faculty would find amusing or learn from?
I was working on a show, at a theatre, and I was completely uninspired by the script. The director was also completely uninspired by the script. Now, normally when I read a piece and/or listen to the score, I instantly get a sense of what it could look like in my head, but not on this flaming piece of garbage. BUT I was paid to do a job so I was going to try my utmost best to put something acceptable on stage. I tried to get inspiration from my other collaborators (none were too impressed by the piece), and then I went to the (Met) museum before heading out of town, to stare at pretty things and see if that jogged some inspiration. What finally cracked the puzzle for me were some list-making techniques that ML taught us in our first-year design class. I’m not going to say what I put on stage was going to win any awards, but it got me through the project and the producers were happy.
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the scope of the career as a whole. When I decided to go back to school, it was because I wanted to better my existing training - but also to learn new ways of using my talent. Since graduating, I’ve worked in theatre, dance, and opera, but also on major corporate work, television shows, architecture and museum projects, as well as concerts - and even how to improve the lighting in animal shelters in NYC. I have so many little things I’m proud of, but I’m much more satisfied as an artist when I consider the entire scope how I keep busy.
When did you get interested in theater and how?
In 5th grade I was the only person in the class that didn’t opt to do chorus (I don’t sing). They had to find something to do with me while every single other person was on stage. I started doing everything: lights, sound, operating the curtain; and I’ve never looked back.
What or who were your influences?
I’m constantly trying to stay open to new influences. I tell my associates I am a “design hermit crab”: I borrow and steal from everyone I’ve worked with. To that end, I’ve pursued a very direct path with my career as an associate designer. I only sign onto projects where I can either a) get paid to hang out with my friends, or b) have an opportunity to watch someone whose aesthetic I’m interested in. To that end, I’ve been influenced by Allen Lee Hughes, Robert Wierzel, Kevin Adams, Michael Gilliam, Jennifer Tipton, ML Geiger, Tyler Micoleau, Driscoll Otto ‘07, and so many other great designers.
As you design and meet the challenges of being a freelance artist, are there any voices that you particularly hear from the aggregation of voices?
ML, Allen, and Robert are always there to help. As is Barbara—I tell new students that Barbara Cokorinos might be the single greatest resource that NYU has - and it has some stellar people.
From outside of school:
My wife. I’m glad I ‘married outside the [theatre] family.’ She helps me keep perspective.
Are there any challenges and/or rewards that you feel lighting designers have that are different ones that other designers may have?
We can work on more shows per year than other designers can. We can also glide between different ways of using our talents a little easier (from theatre to dance to TV to industrials).
What are some of your other interests in life?
It’s been suggested by more than one person that I become a bartender. I love cocktails and cocktail culture. Because of the travel involved in our work, I’m able to try cocktail bars all over the world, and I keep a custom google map of all the places I’ve been and that I want to go. I also collect coasters from each place (if they let me). You can find my Instagram account at @drinks.i.drink.
What was your favorite snack that your assistant brought to you during tech?
Nancy Schertler got me started on almonds when I was assisting her, and it translated into being my favorite snack.
Do you have any final thoughts?
I’m sure others have said this, but make sure you have avenues to find inspiration in your life. Sometimes the well runs dry and needs to be refreshed. If you continue to live in NYC, we have some great museums. Nature is always a great source of inspiration for me. I keep a folder of pictures on my phone that is just dedicated to interesting color combinations - and lighting - that catch my attention. Books are great, as are people, but have something - because we all need a refresher from time to time, and because designers have a very hard time learning how to say ‘no’ to work (something that is maybe also wise to work on.)